Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Financial Aid for PLA?

Adult students often know stuff for which they don’t have academic credit.  When they can get transcripted credit for knowledge or skills they can document, they get a head start towards a degree. But giving them credit for what they can document is often a lot harder than it sounds.

Quick: what’s the single biggest barrier to giving credit for portfolios of work?

Yes, there are issues of rigor, but those are largely addressable through looking at student learning outcomes.  Yes, there are issues of turf, but (most of) those can be managed, even if it occasionally involves calling someone on the carpet.  Those issues exist, but they’re comparatively minor.  What’s the big one?


Assessing a portfolio takes time.  Assessing lots of portfolios takes lots of time.  That time needs to be compensated.  And we don’t currently have a reasonable way to pay for it, at scale.

Charging students full tuition for the courses for which they’re trying to get credit would work well for the institution, but it’s absurd for the student.  CAEL has a well-developed system for evaluating portfolios of work -- the term of art is Prior Learning Assessment, or PLA -- but it’s expensive, and the cost isn’t covered by financial aid.  Students have to put cash on the barrel, with no guarantee of an outcome.  (If the outcome were guaranteed, that would amount to selling credits, which is what diploma mills do and what accreditation exists to avoid.)  For a student with relevant experience, a high fee for PLA feels like a shakedown.  For a college that doesn’t want to do shakedowns, though, PLA amounts to an unfunded mandate.  Scaling it up means scaling up an uncompensated cost at a moment when most public colleges can’t seriously entertain the idea.  

Iris Palmer, from New America, had a good piece this week on some of the issues around PLA and the ways to pay for it.  Apparently Indiana is using state funding to offset the cost, which strikes me as an excellent idea all the way around.  It leaves students’ Pell limits untouched, which is no small thing; it reduces the cost for the state of generating more college graduates; and it allows colleges to step up without blowing holes in their budgets.  

Most states, including my own, don’t do that.  They should.

PLA credits shorten the time to degree, which is a good in itself.  They also show respect students and what they’ve been able to learn on their own.  They’re validating on a personal level, with salutary effects on student morale and motivation.  They also prevent frustrated students having to endure, and pay for, courses that cover what they already know.  

Many years ago, a professor who taught Spanish told me that her most challenging students were native Spanish speakers who took Spanish 1 because they thought it would be easy.  Instead, they got bored, starting missing assignments, and even failed before they knew it.  Educationally, I’d be hard-pressed to explain why that was good.  It strikes me as a waste all around: the students spent (or borrowed) money for a class they didn’t need; the professor had frustrated students; the county and state subsidized a fool’s errand.  

At least with Spanish, we have CLEP exams.  But many courses don’t have CLEP exams, and/or don’t really lend themselves to a standardized test format.  

Federal financial aid is a tricky fit with PLA for a bunch of reasons.  But state aid doesn’t have to be.  PLA credits aren’t free -- the aforementioned assessment costs money -- but they’re cheaper than paying for entire classes.  Scaling up the assessment process could lead to economies of scale, at least in terms of structure, which would make the cost advantage even greater.  And from a recruitment perspective, colleges would stand to benefit.

My own state will have a new governor shortly.  I offer this idea freely.  This is about as low-hanging as low-hanging fruit gets.